by Karl “Frebus” Frebe
I had some definite reasons to volunteer for the Marine Corps. Since I knew I was about to be drafted, I wanted to be certain of seeing some action, to be the best trained I could be, and surrounded by well-trained people. That left me with one choice, USMC. Since I’m from Ohio, and I wanted to go to the West Coast anyway because I have a brother who is a former Marine living in Southern California, boot camp at San Diego was an added perk.
Training to carry a radio on my back wasn’t a fun thing, but I wanted to be a grunt and field radio school was a part of it. Everything went about as I expected until I arrived at Ninth Marines, on Hill 55. I was taken out of radio and sent to the Comm. Center.
After months of training for combat, I would see the war from inside a bunker! But, that’s where the training to adapt pays off: ‘When what you expect doesn’t happen, make the best of what you have’. I didn’t have any Comm. Center training, so I learned what I needed to know after I got there, which is pretty much the way Marines learn things in the field. I had learned to be a Marine before that and I had confidence in myself (some would say cockiness), I would deal with whatever came my way, whether friend or foe. And just so I never forget where I was, if the CP were to be over-run, (always possible), all the machines are set-up to self- destruct. You don’t want to witness that, it’s a lot of Willy-Pete going off inside the bunker so all that’s left is a smoking hole in the ground. In the event of trouble, the bunker is not a safe place.
Some guys are content to do their assigned tasks, put in their time, and go home. And the less that happens, the better. But that’s not what I signed on for. Doing my tour of duty in this way got to me. And when a grunt called me a ‘Damn Pogue’, that did it. I couldn’t just turn away and pretend it didn’t happen. I certainly would not fight a fellow Marine, but I had to do something. I didn’t want the Viet Nam experiences to be just bad memories. I would do my assigned task to the best of my ability as expected, but there had to be more. That’s where hitch hiking entered the picture. I soon learned that every driver will pick up any service man in need of a ride. So, I left the Hill as often as I could, using any excuse to run errands for others’ and myself I always asked permission first, and because I was proficient at my job I would always be allowed to go. We worked 12 on and 12 off, switching every Sunday, which meant I could forego sleep and go for a ride once or twice per week, every other week.
One of the first trips I took was a short one, a few miles, to a neighboring battalion CP. I had made friends with some of the guys who worked the mess hall. They had planned to go to 2/12 to trade some food and I would join them after breakfast. I got permission from the Comm U’s office, donned my flak jacket and helmet, (necessary when leaving the Hill), and joined them at the gate of Ninth Marines CP. But I didn’t expect they would be ridding a Mule! That’s an odd vehicle, a motorized buck-board with fat tires. No suspension, just fat tires. About 4 1/2′ by 7′, and flat, with a canvas-filled depression near the front that is supposed to be the driver’s seat, and that’s it for accommodations. Two of us sat behind each other, with our rifles across our laps, hanging-on to the sides and each other as best we could, as the driver was in a hurry. (I’d meet him again; he was always in a hurry). When I saw the load of stuff that they had put on that little mule for the return trip, I decided to walk home. (Maybe it’s not a good idea to walk alone, but what choice did I have?). Walking turned out to be faster anyway, because they stopped often to retrieve what had fallen off While in Da Nang, one day, and heading for home, I hitched a ride on an Air Force 6by. I don’t know where they were headed, maybe An Hoa, anyway South away from the air base. After being on the road toward Ninth Marines for a while, they turned, so I got off I could see the driver reading a hand-drawn map. He wasn’t lost, but it was obvious that neither of them had been in this area before. They said it was good to have a Marine on board riding shot-gun, and asked if they would meet more Marines ahead. I said I didn’t know, but probably. I was to hear sentiments like that expressed many times, thanking me for riding along. In a short time I caught a ride the rest of the way to the Hill.
I was standing on the corner, near the main PX in Da Nang, when three guys I knew from the mess hail came by in a Mighty Mite. (That’s a small Jeep). They recognized me and invited me along. As it was afternoon and they were heading toward the Hill, I climbed aboard. Wherever they were coming from, they were feeling no pain. They offered me some tiger-piss so I could join them. Not knowing what to expect, I tasted it. The Colt 45, bottled in Japan, tasted like watered-down cheap whiskey. So I had some more. The driver decided that he knew a shorter route down a different road further to the south, but still heading west. That sounded good to all of us. The road was gravel, really quite smooth, and deserted. It was very straight with rice paddies along both sides for miles. No traffic and no hooches. As we sped along, the driver spotted a lunch-meat can in the road. That’s a can about 5″x5″x18″ used for shipping lunchmeat. The can was open on one end. The driver tried to run it over. He missed. So He backed up, missed again. He backed far enough to get running start. This time he nipped it and sent it spinning toward the side of the road. A grenade flew out and went toward the ditch. Bang! A lot of gravel flew in all directions, but no damage. We cheered and drank to our good luck. (I guess it’s true that God protects fools and drunks, because we were both). The driver was right; this secondary road joined the main road back home to Ninth Marines.
One day I was near the air base, in Northeast Da Nang, and as luck would have it, I caught a ride in a Jeep with three guys from 2/12, the artillery battalion, who were going to their CP with a new guy they had just picked up at the air base. A new replacement. As we went along, we saw a kid standing beside the road, holding something. As we got near we could see this kid, about twelve I suppose, was holding an unexploded mortar round. The kid wanted to sell the dud. At first, the other guys said ‘No way,’ but I talked them into taking it. I said, “What if this were your home? Would you want this thing in your neighborhood? And besides, it does have explosives in it, do you want him to sell it to the VC?” Between us, we gave the kid four dollars. Since it was my idea, they made me carry it. I held it outside the Jeep at arms length. I don’t know what good that would do, but I didn’t want it close to me. The new guy held my rifle, he didn’t yet have one of his own. When we got the battalion CP, they went inside, leaving me standing outside with the new guy. They soon came back with a Sgt. to inspect the dud. He did, and said, “Let me guess. You bought this thing from a kid on the side of the road, you thought you were doing something good. Well, it’s empty, not only is it harmless, it’s useless. It’s hard to tell what the kid did with the explosives. Oh, and by the way, the going price for these is $2. I hope he didn’t get you for more.” The guys from 2/12 looked at me and all I could say was, “I didn’t know.” The new guy had dropped my rifle and ran the moment the Sgt. showed up. The expression on his face was the only high point of the whole affair. I walked back to the Hill.
Thinking back on some of the things I did, I wonder how many other guys would have ended up on the MIA list? And why I didn’t? But, no thoughts like that at the time.
Semper Fi Karl “Frebus” Frebe